Michael Harney talks ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
We are just past the two week point since Netflix’s incredible look inside a women’s prison, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, was released. In that 2 week time period, I mainlined all thirteen episodes, back to back, twice, living through the pain, the horror, the humor, and the relationships, to be able to state with 100% confidence that it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen – the show is truly about Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who carried drug money across country lines 10 years ago, and who know faces 15 months in jail, but it quickly turned into a character study that I haven’t been so invested in in years. The diverse and likeable cast is incredible, and I’ve said for years that Schilling is destined for greatness (I was a huge fan of hers on MERCY years back). So incredible was season 1 that before Netflix even released it, they did the incredibly smart thing and renewed OITNB for a second season, insuring that we wouldn’t get attached to these characters only to have them ripped away!
This first season brought twists, turns, heartbreak, and hope to these women in the system, having to deal with awful, awful COs (and one to two not so awful COs who I love), an awful woman named Fig, and a complex and multi-layered counselor preoccupied with the inmates’ lesbian proclivities and his own struggle-filled marriage. That counselor in question, Sam Healy, is portrayed by familiar-face Michael J Harney, himself a veteran of another Jenji Kohan project (WEEDs), among many other notable roles (as one of the biggest fans of PERSONS UNKNOWN from NBC years back, he’s always been a favorite of mine). I spent time chatting with Michael about what makes Sam tick, why he wanted to be a part of this show (his answer was surprising and in depth), and what it’s like working opposite Emmy-worthy Taylor (OITNB was released too late for Emmy consideration this year, but I hope word of mouth keeps it an active part of the conversation for next year).
Every character on the show is diverse. There are two layers, two sides to every character. I wondered what it was about Sam that made you want to participate?
It was my past with [creator] Jenji [Kohan] for sure. I did WEEDS for two seasons, and working with that crew was just tremendous, so that had a lot to do with it. Everybody’s really devoted to creating something of quality. The other piece that had a lot to do with it for me was that I had done work in prison reform as a college student. I did volunteer work, and used to go to prisons. I worked on several cases with a couple of churches, a couple of work groups, the Fortune Society. I was going to be a social worker years ago, prior to becoming an actor. There was a natural attraction for me in that regard. I also feel that it’s important represent, in a meaningful way, people that are incarcerated. Those in our culture that have been forgotten in many respects.
That’s one of the things that I love about the show – it’s a side of this world we haven’t seen a lot. Whether they had a crime in their past, you’re seeing them now, and falling for them now.
That has a lot to do with the writing, for me. A good writer, which we have a whole crew of them, a good writer will really get underneath a character’s motivation, find out why a character is doing what they’re doing, find out what they’re doing circumstantially and what are the circumstances that would best represent this character. They’re really painting on this huge canvas, and I think it’s really a testament to the writing. And also, the direction. I haven’t heard a lot of talk about the look of the show, but the look of the show is really, it draws you right into the world. The lighting, and the authenticity of the sets, and certainly the quality of the film, the texture of the film, I believe is drawing you right into the heart of the story.
How does shooting for Netflix differ from a weekly series we might see on Showtime, or a network, for example?
I think that it’s just like shooting a television show. The similarities far, far outweigh any differences. The difference, of course, is that viewers can watch the entire season in two days or one day if they want. It’s totally accessible to them. In shooting it, it’s like working on a good movie.
Talk a little bit about Sam Healy – what backstory you knew going in, what you found out that you shot this season?
As an artist, for me, it’s living through another life. It’s always really a turn on for me to be able to find out what the obstacles are for the character that I’m portraying. And then finding ways of dealing with those obstacles, and those motivational factors become ingrained. I think part of the answer to your question is that this guy has tremendous obstacles, just at the get go, in dealing with trying to do the right thing in a very limited environment. When I say limited, I mean that the resources in the prison system are limited. The financial limitations in the prison system are very real. There are limitations in terms of being able to clearly communicate to different inmates, just by nature of cultural differences, and certainly many inmates have experienced so much hardship in their life, and there’s a genuine defensiveness that exists at the very beginning of their stay. They walk in with it. It’s not their fault; it’s just their history. Ned O’Gorman was a guy when I was doing social work years ago, called “The Children are Dying.” In it, he talked about 30 case studies of people that had been incarcerated. In each case, the background of each person was horrific. Dealing with dysfunctional patients, dealing with crime at the age of four, being asked to commit crime at the age of 5 or 6. Not being supervised, at all. Walking the streets, being abused. It was horrific, and it gave me, as a very young man, a point of view that was not mainstream. IN other words, it was more a point of view that stemmed from compassion as opposed to being a point of view of being in the position of judgment. I think that those are some of the obstacles that are in existence for Sam, as he tries to do the right thing. I think I really do want to do the right thing, but things get skewed. As with anybody, any circumstance, as with life, but more so in the prison system where you’re dealing with so many limitations.
What I also love about the character – he is dealing with limitations at home as well. He wants to do the right thing.
We’ve had a lot of fun, doing that aspect of the character. And it’s interesting. Why an individual would stay in a circumstance that’s not working. There’s a desperation there. It’s almost like the desperate is helping the desperate. Here he is, you see this personal side of him that’s really kind of desperate, and these gals are incarcerated and in a fairly desperate situation. That’s what I mean about there being a certain level of meaning, which is really wonderful that the writers are bringing to this. Everybody has clay-feet. That’s really important.
I really enjoy the relationship with Piper – how Healy and Piper take a step forward, and then two steps back. Tell me about working with Taylor.
She’s a really wonderful actress. Very dedicated to both her craft and living through this character. It was pretty awesome just having a journey with her. What I mean by her is that we went on this path where we were just working off of each other in a very real way, so I have a lot of respect for her, artistically. I think the characters, the journey of the characters, the tapestry of the action of the characters is really very rich. Again, it shows that we’re not always [laughs] at the height of our game. Certainly with the pressures put upon us, very real pressures, that cause us to act out of our historical bag.
How exciting it must be to hear before Season 1 even launches that you’re coming back for Season 2. Such a testament to how strong Netflix felt the show as before audiences binge-watched and fell in love! Where do we go next?
I don’t have any information. Of course, I’m beginning to prep now, so I can’t talk about storylines. But we were all very excited and are very excited at this juncture to really jump in and creating quality stuff.
You mentioned getting involved in pitches down the line – are you actively seeking or pitching stuff that you have written, or is that just something down the line that you’d like to be involved in?
Pretty much just something down the line. I have always written poetry, for many, many years. But it’s always been for myself. I have a large collection of that. I taught acting for quite some time, so I really like to play with creating characters, creating circumstances, and dialogue. I have a real love of dialog, writing dialog. As I get a little older, I wouldn’t be surprised if I started to create some stuff.
Do you have something come up besides ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK?
Yeah, I just finished a really cool project for HBO called TRUE DETECTIVE with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It’s kind of a very rich character role. I just finished that. I don’t know when they’re going to start airing that, but that’s a really well-written story. The writer, [Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote 2 episodes of THE KILLING] in that really went very deep. It’s a new take, a new way of dealing with a subject matter that has been around the block about 50 times and gotten a lot of attention.